Sam Soulier, Klairissa O'Reilly-Dye and Cassidy Schnell are about to go where no member of The First Tee of South Central Wisconsin have ever gone: From start-to-finish in the youth development program and then onto college golf.
The three Madison-area golfers will leave for college this fall to continue their golf careers, continuing a journey that began at the beginning levels of this First Tee chapter launched nearly 10 years ago. The participated Sunday in a signing ceremony at the First Tee learning center at Vitense Golfland — Soulier, of Waunakee, to go to NCAA Division II Minnesota State-Mankato; O'Reilly-Dye, of Monona Grove High School, to go to Division III UW-Stout; Schnell, of DeForest, to go to Division III St. Olaf (Minn).
The three were among more than 1,300 junior golfers who benefitted from programming at learning centers run by First Tee-SCW in 2017. There are 11 home courses and site location partners in the chapter, from Blackhawk and Riverside Golf Courses in Janesville to Bull's Eye Country Club in Wisconsin Rapids, with three learning centers at Vitense Golfland, Cherokee CC on Madison's North Side and Nine Springs Golf Course on Madison's South Side.
"They mean everything," said Brad Munn, program coordinator for The First Tee of South Central Wisconsin. "I was the first hire they made for this chapter back in 2010. These girls have been with me the whole time. I've seen them since fifth and sixth grade. To see them now graduating high school and going on to play college golf, I couldn't be more proud."
Likewise, the three couldn't be more indebted to First Tee for lessons learned on and off the golf course, many of which went into their college decisions. Soulier, a four-time WIAA Division 1 sectional and two-time state qualifier, said those lessons went beyond the swing to the Nine Core Values established by the program to build character in its participants — honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance and courtesy.
"It helped the swing aspect of my game, obviously, and everything around that," said Soulier, whose interest in college golf already three years ago led then-First Tee executive director Joni Dye — Klairissa's grandmother — to work with local instructor Bill Kokott in developing an accelerated program geared toward First Tee participants with aspirations of playing at that level.
"The Nine Core Values, by learning that stuff, you know how to carry yourself on the course, which is definitely something college coaches look for. I felt that gave us a (leg) up on everyone else just because we knew how to carry ourselves."
O'Reilly-Dye, a four-time WIAA Division 1 sectional qualifier who twice made it to the state meet, added: "The Nine Core Values have been a big part of my life and I've been practicing them every, single day. I believe my confidence has grown a lot over the years. ... I agree with Sammy that no only physically, but mentally, The First Tee has helped us over the years."
First Tee played perhaps the most important role for Schnell, whose school didn't even sponsor girls golf until her junior year. She said the program gave the two-time Division 1 sectional qualifier the leadership skills she needed to guide the Norskies to the program's first sectional team berth last fall.
"It's really taught me to get over my fears and go for those opportunities that I was scared to do," Schnell said. "It's given me so much confidence and the ability to persevere; I'm not shy and timid about taking those opportunities further in life anymore. ... When I play with other people, even little things like a handshake, you can tell if they've been through The First Tee or not."
Kokott used "character" to describe what the three will take with them to college that will distinguish from others their age. "All the qualities that make them good sports, be resilient and not discouraged by setbacks," he said.
Soulier, O'Reilly-Dye and Schnell may be among the first to go through the Par, Birdie, Eagle and Ace levels of the program and onto college golf. They hope their impact on the South Central chapter doesn't fade when they leave for their college campuses after a summer of accelerated tournament golf.
"Not very many people have asked me about how I feel going into college golf," O'Reilly-Dye said of the younger golfers she mentors. "But there is a little girl — her name is Bella — and I mentored her a lot over the summers. I just want to keep seeing girls like (that) — I see myself in her; I see a lot of determination and promise in her — and I really, really hope girls like her can continue on and keep playing (using) us as examples. I really hope she can inspire other girls and other kids, in general, to keep playing golf."